Ptarmigan numbers "alarmingly" low on Alaska Peninsula

Feb 16, 2017

Fish and Game planning to limit spring hunting and scale back bag limit in GMU 9 in effort to conserve dwindling numbers of game bird, which has apparently been hammered by low snow winters.

Credit US National Park Service

Fish and Game wildlife managers in King Salmon are proposing conservation measures for some small game, including ptarmigan, which are suddenly at alarmingly low levels. KDLG’s Dave Bendinger has more:

Audio Transcript: ADF&G assistant area biologist Chris Peterson says starting three years ago, regular wildlife surveys on the Alaska Peninsula began noticing fewer and fewer ptarmigan. Staff turned more focus on looking for the bird this past year, with concerning results.

"We didn't see hardly any at all," she said. "A great portion, if not all of the Alaska Peninsula, was severely reduced in numbers of ptarmigan. To the point where we could spend a whole day out there and see two, over miles and miles and miles. That's not normal."

In fact she calls it alarming. While ptarmigan populations are known to fluctuate, it became pretty clear pretty quick that a major change was happening. Unlike on the west side of Bristol Bay, where wildlife managers assume ptarmigan have been staying at higher elevations during these several past low snow winters, on the east side, Peterson says they’re not to be found anywhere.

"Some of the birds could've moved, but we've been up in the mountains, and yes, we'll see a few here and there. But even the numbers that we're used to seeing there are down," said Peterson. "We haven't found any place where we've noticed the normal numbers for that place are up. Everywhere that we've looked, they're down. It's a severe decrease, and there's a lot that we don't know at the moment."

What Peterson and wildlife manager Dave Crowley do suspect is that the warm winters have been to blame. Whether it was El Nino or a changing climate, the past two to three winters have seen unusually low snow cover on the Peninsula, which has taken on a toll on the birds.

"A ptarmigan is extremely well adapted to having snow, and being adapted to that it almost needs it," she said. "So when there is no snow for it to snuggle down into for insulation, then the full brunt of any cold weather is felt by the animal, and it's very costly in terms of energy."

Low snow cover leaves ptarmigan more visible and vulnerable to predators, and has also probably led to a decline in food sources like insects and moss berries. Hunters, she says, are not to blame for the decline. But conservation measures being proposed for GMU 9 from Port Alsworth to Cold Bay could help prevent further loss.

"Hopefully it will turn around before everything gets so low that it's a really extended low population. And that's really what we're working on, is reducing the extent to which it declines. If we can just do that, it will come back much more quickly."

ADF&G is proposing to reduce the bag limit to 10 per day and 20 in possession, and to close hunting in the month of April when spring breeding is underway.

The King Salmon wildlife managers are also concerned about Alaska hares on the Peninsula. These larger cousins to the common snowshoe hare were once abundant and are now nearly absent, according to ADF&G. Regulations currently allow 12 months of hunting with no bag limit, but ADF&G is recommending reducing the season by four months and setting a bag limit of just one hare. 

Reach the author dave@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.